Seeks public approval
By Julia Purdy
CHITTENDEN—On Jan. 18, 2017, the Chittenden Select Board held a special meeting to discuss the potential purchase of a sizeable piece of Chittenden by the Green Mountain National Forest (GMNF). About 17 people attended, in addition to the entire Select Board, three planning commissioners and representatives of the Green Mountain National Forest and the New Hampshire-Vermont Trust for Public Land.
The outlines of the proposition were presented by Realty Specialist Pat D’Andrea of the Green Mountain National Forest Middlebury office, and Kate Wanner, representing the Trust for Public Land (TPL), which would purchase and own the land until the transfer to the GMNF. The presentation was the first step toward putting the issue to a vote in Chittenden later this spring.
The seller is Blue Ridge Properties, LLC, of Chittenden.
Chittenden residents’ eyebrows were raised when they learned that a major investor had acquired a swath of forest land in Chittenden with the aim of developing a massive sugaring operation for the bulk market. Smaller local producers feared being squeezed out of markets. The company also bulldozed the unused portion of Elbow Road into the property from North Sherburne on the east and the end of Wildcat Road in Chittenden on the west.
The land was posted and the quiet backcountry was disrupted by new roads, people complained. But the sugarhouse was never built, although 60,000 taps were set on 400 acres. The developers, Patrick Dupuis and Patrick Malone, quit the project for personal reasons and decided to sell the entire property.
The total purchase would consist of 2,792 acres with 2,522, or 90 percent of that acreage, located in Chittenden, a maximum of 509 acres in Mendon and a maximum of 231 acres in Killington.
GMNF refers to the parcel as Rolston Rest, after the name of the Long Trail shelter there. A color-coded map of Rolston Rest provided by TPL to the Chittenden Select Board shows a multi-parcel inholding on the ridge between Wildcat Road and Elbow Road, nearly surrounded by national forest, with the Long Trail passing through it.
Rolston Rest contains about 11 miles of headwater streams, which eventually find their way into Lake Champlain and which GMNF manages for water quality. The watershed includes the Rutland Town Forest drinking water protection area, about 82 acres.
GMNF acquisition of Rolston Rest would occur in two phases, Wanner explained to the Mountain Times. Since the federal acquisition process can take over two years and the seller is not able to wait that long, Wanner said, the Trust for Public Land is buying the property outright and has a signed purchase and sale agreement in hand. In the second phase of the plan, GMNF would purchase Rolston Rest from TPL.
Wanner explained that TPL does not use any public funds and does not contract with the federal government for the work. To cover the other costs associated with the purchase, TPL must raise private funds privately, including winning a grant from the Lintilhac Foundation for this project. Funds for GMNF’s acquisition would come from the federal Bureau of Land Management’s Land & Water Conservation Fund for FY18.
TPL has partnered successfully with public lands in the past, most recently the Jim Jeffords State Forest in Mendon and Shrewsbury.
In addition to the sugaring operation and the new roads, there are five camps on leased land and a year-round cabin high on the mountainside, where Dupuis resided.
It was explained at the Chittenden meeting that since GMNF is not interested in being a landlord, the leased lots would be offered to the camp owners at fair market value as determined by an independent appraiser.
Wanner said she had met with all the camp owners to discuss their options going forward. Although all had signed leases with the previous owner, the timber company A. Johnson, none have signed leases with Blue Ridge and so they have no control over their fate. “They were all thrilled to have the ability to buy the land under them and secure their camps,” Wanner said.
As for the sugaring operation, the national forest has a current moratorium on sugaring leases, according to District Ranger Chris Mattrick of the Rochester ranger station. Since the tubing is already there, sugaring may be allowed under special use and forest products permits. People interested in this opportunity can contact Chris Mattrick in the Rochester District, keeping in mind that the policy would not apply until and if the GMNF takes ownership of the property. Otherwise, tubing and taps will be removed by volunteer labor, said Wanner.
When asked why this purchase is important—since the “North Half” of the Green Mountain National Forest already contains approx. 170,000 acres—Mattrick said that the plan for the Forest sets a priority on acquiring inholdings and areas with high-quality natural and recreational resources. Rolston Rest is “smack-dab in the viewshed” overlooking Chittenden Reservoir and is especially important for conservation for a number of reasons. In addition, he noted that new private landowner(s) could close off the use of both the Long and Catamount trails, unless protected by easement, forcing them to be moved.
While not wilderness, Rolston Rest qualifies for “diverse back-country” management, meaning an effort to preserve the sights, sounds and feel of remote back country, with the natural mix of tree species and wildlife habitat, allowing natural forces to operate, and an unobtrusive human presence, including a prohibition on towers of any kind.
Associated with that, “diverse forest use” would manage for more general recreation, including campsites and bike or snowmobile trails, with care to enhance enjoyment of the forest through preserving sources.”
larger trees, viewpoints and “forest communities.”
While TPL owns the property, it will not be bound by GMNF policies and management plans, Mattrick said. However, a joint statement by TPL and GMNF describes TPL’s mission as “protecting strategic and important forestland that protects recreational access, connected wildlife habitat, working lands, and drinking water. The all-important question now is: will the funds be there for the GMNF purchase?
In an email to the Mountain Times, Wanner wrote: “Our agreement is contingent upon the project being included in the list of projects proposed to be funded by the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund for FY18. If TPL takes the risk of buying the property because we are on the LWCF list but then Congress doesn’t appropriate the funds as expected, we will apply again next year, or find a conservation buyer.”
The Trust for Public Land is asking for approval from all three towns.
The proposal is contingent upon the approval of the town of Chittenden as having the largest land area in Rolston Rest. If Chittenden agrees but the other towns do not, the Chittenden acreage will be sold to GMNF separately, Wanner’s email continued. Other solutions will be sought for the excluded parcels: “potentially state ownership, or a conservation easement with a private forestland buyer. Or, we’ll put those parcels back on the market, unconserved. If Chittenden says no, the whole deal is dead,” she wrote.
Conversely, Chittenden’s acceptance does not guarantee the purchase. “The deal can definitely fail even if the town supports it,” Wanner wrote.
As might be expected, the pros and cons are being debated within the town. The questions at the Select Board special meeting reflected townspeople’s fundamental concerns.
Attendees raised concerns about why the national forest is interested and how it would manage the land, specifically what uses would be permitted, how the plan would dovetail with existing features such as town-owned roads and the town emergency plan, the potential cost to the town and taxpayers versus the benefits, and how economic growth would be affected by the purchase.
Gary Congdon, chair of the Chittenden Select Board, told the Mountain Times that the Select Board is keeping an open mind and has deferred any decision to a town vote in April, following another informational meeting which will take place in March, which Chris Mattrick said he plans to attend.
Non-voters have a right to offer input as well.
The proposal was presented to the Killington Select Board on Feb. 7 and will be presented to the Mendon Select Board Feb. 13.